Uncovering the Past: Shigir idol, Mayan city of Nixtun-Ch’ich, ancient drug use, and more

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As some Pagans and Heathens attempt to revive ancient or indigenous religions they often rely on the work of historians, primary texts and archaeologists. For this reason, when something new pops up that challenges long held academic ideas on cultural or religious practice, we pay attention. Here are some of the new(er) finds making waves in archaeological circles.

The Shigir idol

YEKATERINGBURG, Russia — In 1894, gold prospectors near Yekaterinburg, 880 miles east of Moscow, found a carved wooden statue 16 feet, 4.8 inches (5 meters) long. Images of human faces, human hands, and zig zag cover the statue; t also had a human head at its top. It is called the Shigir idol.

Archaeologists have now dated the statue to about 9500 B.C.E. This was just after the glaciers began to retreat at the end of the last ice age, making the Shigir idol the oldest monumental sculpture ever found. For context, archaeologists date Stonehenge to 3100 B.C.E. and the pyramids to 2600 B.C.E.

The Shigir idol predates the invention of agriculture. Previously, archaeologists had believed that only agricultural societies produced monumental sculptures.

Shigir idol [Wikimedia Commons.]

A Mayan city as a sacred landscape

LAKE PETÉE ITZÁ, Guatemala — Most Mayan cities show a sprawling, decentralized pattern, but new technology has revealed a compact grid pattern in one lowland Mayan city, Nixtun-Ch’ich, near the lake. The remnants of this city lie beneath Guatemalan pasture land. A slight depression of the land’s current surface reflects the streets of the ancient city. Cattle now trod along that echo of streets hidden below the earth’s surface.

The Mayans began to build Nixtun-Ch’ich’s around 500 B.C.E. At that time, they had begun to become farmers, and Mayan civilization was beginning. This grid pattern suggests more centralized planning in Nixtun-Ch’ich than in the more common sprawling, decentralized cities of the lowlands.

Most Mayan cities incorporated a cenote into their urban plan. A cenote is a water-filled sinkhole. In myth, a cenote represents the entrance to the underworld. The Maya considered animals like the crocodile to be sacred liminal beings, because they straddled water and land; these were associated with cenotes. In a common Mayan creation myth, a crocodile would straddle land and water. The gods would slit its throat. The blood from that wound would create the earth.

Nixtun-Ch’ich lacked a functioning cenote. It did have an eight-foot (2.44-meter) depression of about 15,000 square feet (1,393 square meters) in are. When archaeologists excavated this depression, they found no bedrock, only damp soil. They suspect that water would have filled this depression/cenote during the rainy season.

West of this depression lies an E-Group of buildings, a type commonly found in lowland Mayan cities. A pyramid sits west of a long platform with three structures on top of that platform, forming an “E” shape. From the pyramid, people could see the sun rise. On the equinoxes, the sun would rise over the center building. On the solstices, it would rise over the northern or southern building. Archaeologists have found evidences of terraced walls along the sides of the depression/cenote. These terraced walls could accommodate many viewers. Archaeologists also found nearby large serving vessels as well as animal bones, indicating community feasts at this site.

Some archaeologists have theorized that the Maya constructed their cities as part of a sacred landscape. One archaeologist, Prudence Rice, suggested that the grid pattern represented the creation myth of the sacrificed crocodile. The grid pattern of the city could reflect the scales of the crocodile. She also suggested that the depression/cenote could reflect the slit throat of the crocodile. While this suggestion is possible, at present no way exists to prove or disprove it.

Evidence of ancient drug use

TWH — Until recently, minimal evidence existed that people in the ancient world used psychoactive drugs other than alcohol. Archaeologists have now found evidence of ritual opium use on Cyprus from 1000 B.C.E. Excavations in the Caucasus found braziers with cannabis seeds from 3000 B.C.E. Other people were using the blue water lily to get high.

“New” Nazca lines found

NAZCA, Peru — Drone photography has discovered 214 previously unknown earth carvings about a half-mile (.8 km) north of the Nazca lines. These lines differ in their location, line width and subject matter from the Nazca lines. Some archaeologists interpret these differences to mean that many cultures created these lines.

These recently-discovered Nazca lines are much leaner than the previously known ones. Some have widths of only a few inches, but stretch for hundreds of yards (one yard equals 0.91 meters). The more familiar Nazca lines feature animals and supernatural beings while the newly-discovered lines depict humans. While the previously known lines run atop flatlands, these newly discovered lines run atop hilly terrain. They date from about 400 B.C.E., linking these new lines to the Paracas and Topara cultures. Those cultures existed from 500 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.

Academics have two theories to explain the construction of these lines. In one theory, the lines marked out a processional route to a pre-Inca temple complex. In the other theory, people placed broken pottery along the routes of these lines.

Evidence of child sacrifice found in Peru

HUANCHAQUITO-LAS LLAMAS, Peru — Sometime around 1450 C.E., 140 children were sacrificed and buried in Huanchaquito-Las Llamas. Most of the sacrificed children were between eight and 12. The youngest was five, and the oldest 14.

Also sacrificed and buried in that site were 200 juvenile llamas. The children and llamas were buried on the bluff where the sacrifice took place. While the children were buried facing the sea, the llamas were buried facing the Andes. The bluff lies 1,000 feet (305 meters) from the sea.

Part of the sacrifice involved extracting the hearts of the sacrificial victims. Red pigment was smeared on the children’s faces. The children appeared well-fed and healthy at the time of the sacrifice. Archaeologists have theorized that only an existential threat could have justified such a sacrifice. They have tentatively linked this threat with evidence of severe flooding around the time of the sacrifice, an El Niño event.

This site was part of the Chimu Empire (900 C.E. to 1470 C.E.). The Chimu controlled the Peruvian coast between the Ecuadorian border and the site of Lima. The Incas conquered the Chimu in 1470 C.E., roughly a generation after this sacrifice.

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Here are some resources for Pagans interested in archaeology.